Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems

  • Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems / Volume 29 / Issue 01 / March 2014, pp 3-27
  • Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 The online version of this article is published within an Open Access environment subject to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence <>. The written permission of Cambridge University Press must be obtained for commercial re-use.
  • DOI: (About DOI), Published online: 10 October 2013

Research Papers

The potassium paradox: Implications for soil fertility, crop production and human health

S.A. Khana1 c1, R.L. Mulvaneya1 and T.R. Ellswortha1

a1 Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1102 S. Goodwin Avenue, Urbana, IL 61801, USA.


Intensive fertilizer usage of KCl has been inculcated as a prerequisite for maximizing crop yield and quality, and relies on a soil test for exchangeable K in the plow layer to ensure that soil productivity will not be limited by nutrient depletion. The interpretive value of this soil test was rigorously evaluated by: (1) field sampling to quantify biweekly changes and seasonal trends, (2) characterizing the variability induced by air drying and the dynamic nature of soil K reserves and (3) calculating the K balance in numerous cropping experiments. These evaluations leave no alternative but to question the practical utility of soil K testing because test values cannot account for the highly dynamic interchange between exchangeable and non-exchangeable K, exhibit serious temporal instability with or without air drying and do not differentiate soil K buildup from depletion. The need for routine K fertilization should also be questioned, considering the magnitude and inorganic occurrence of profile reserves, the recycling of K in crop residues and the preferential nature of K uptake. An extensive survey of more than 2100 yield response trials confirmed that KCl fertilization is unlikely to increase crop yield. Contrary to the inculcated perception of KCl as a qualitative commodity, more than 1400 field trials predominately documented a detrimental effect of this fertilizer on the quality of major food, feed and fiber crops, with serious implications for soil productivity and human health.

(Accepted June 05 2013)

(Online publication October 10 2013)

Key words

  • soil K testing;
  • soil K reserves;
  • residue K recycling;
  • KCl;
  • potash fertilizer;
  • agricultural sustainability;
  • Cd bioaccumulation;
  • Morrow Plots


c1 Corresponding author: